Two years ago, Harvey Weinstein, who runs Miramax Films with an iron fist that no doubt smells of cigarettes and meat, bought a Hong Kong-made movie called Hero for $20 million. That is an extraordinary amount of money for a foreign-language film made by a director, Zhang Yimou, relatively unknown in the United States; for his money, Weinstein bought the right to distribute the film not only in North America, but also Latin America, the U.K., Australia, Italy, Africa and New Zealand.
Weinstein imagines Hero to be Miramax's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--a swordplay spectacle that will cross over to American audiences wowed by the sight of actors soaring from invisible wires and moved by the complex relationships between men and women who must fight for peace. In a release announcing the purchase, Weinstein said Miramax was "thrilled to be distributing" Hero, which he described as "an incredible project involving some of the most talented people in Asian filmmaking," among them Zhang, Jet Li and rising stars Donnie Yen and Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi. Weinstein bought Hero in February 2002, well before it opened in China and shattered that country's box-office records.
A friend bought Hero on DVD for $16.99 in May 2003, as a gift for me. Today, you can find it on the Internet or at a local Chinese-language video store for even less; there's one on eBay for $4.99. Hell of a bargain, especially when you consider that Hero--which was among the five nominees for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards last freaking year--has still not been shown on a single U.S. movie screen, outside of one film festival.
There is, as far as those who have seen Hero are concerned, no good reason for its delay in reaching these shores. It's an astonishing film, the kind for which clichés such as "breathtaking" and "awe-inspiring" were invented for movie posters and TV commercials. It tells the story of the birth of a nation through a man, played by Jet Li, who may or may not be trying to assassinate a king who wants to expand his kingdom till it encompasses all of China. Li, playing a character called Nameless, tells the king he has successfully eliminated the assassins trying to do in the paranoid ruler, who has encased himself in armor.
Nameless tells of his duels with Sky (Yen), who attacks with a spear; with Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), whose power comes from calligraphy; and with Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword's lover and a woman so quick she can dodge thousands of arrows launched at her. Those who would compare it to Crouching Tiger (with its treetop duels and ability to walk on water) or Rashomon (with its repeated tellings of a tale, never quite the same) miss the point; Hero is its own spectacular entity, a magic trick you've never before seen. "Zhang Yimou may have dipped his cinematic pen in 'mere' genre," Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine's Asian version in December 2002, "but in doing so, he has inscribed a masterpiece."
So where the hell is Hero?
Miramax, which is owned by Disney, has had Hero on its release schedule several times--most recently, for April 16 of this year. But that changed on January 8, when Miramax announced it was moving the second installment of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill from February 20 to April 16. There is, quite simply, no way on earth Harvey and brother Bob Weinstein will keep Hero on that date to compete with beloved Quentin.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations between Miramax and Hong Kong-based Elite Group Enterprises, which financed Hero, the Weinsteins don't have to release the movie by any specific date. But Miramax does have to give it a major release "in such a way that will bring in the greatest box office and reach the most people," says one source.
Word is the filmmakers aren't frustrated with Miramax's jumping on and off dates--Zhang is already onto another film, a romantic epic, which is due out this year in China--and won't be upset as long as Miramax makes good on its word to put a lot of zeroes at the end of Hero's box-office totals. The studio says it's been busy making and marketing the likes of Chicago, Gangs of New York, the two Kill Bills and Cold Mountain to give Hero the respect and release of which it's worthy.
"Every film needs tender loving care," says Kevin Kasha, Miramax's executive vice president of home entertainment. "It's just a question of finding the right spot to get the audience it deserves and making sure the money is well spent."
Yet there can be no doubt the studio has squandered the film's momentum, which included pieces in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times more than a year ago, not to mention its international acclaim and Oscar nomination a year ago.
"Miramax is the one company that can create its own wave," says one source. "I am sure Harvey must believe once he figures out what to do with these territories, he can create his own campaign. Do you treat it like Crouching Tiger? Do you treat it like a Jet Li movie? How much do you focus on the action and CG effects? It's an interesting issue. He just has to come up with an explanation for some people why it was delayed. Most people don't care."
Why Miramax bought Hero is no mystery: The studio missed out on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and was furious to see all that yuan filling up the Fox coffers. So it spent a fortune on Hero, just as it was wrapping production two years ago. Hero opened in China the last weekend of December 2002 and promptly broke all box-office records: According to Variety, the film pocketed about $1.45 million on its first day of release--amazing in a country where pirscy has decimated the audience and films run for only a few days. Hero opened in 200 theaters and broke attendance records in each one, forcing theaters to begin showing the movie as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 2 a.m.
The movie has played damned near every country on the planet, where distributors other than Miramax have handled it. In France, Universal got the movie in theaters; in Spain, it was Columbia; in Japan, Warner Bros.; in the rest of Asia, Fox. And they've all made money with Hero, with aggressive and beautiful marketing campaigns tied into the movie's success in China and internationally.
In his new book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, Peter Biskind points out that Hero was the first movie Miramax bought since 1999, when it paid $10 million at Sundance for the mediocre comedy Happy, Texas and made but $2 million for its troubles. Biskind calls the amount paid for Hero "mind-boggling," insisting that Weinstein thought it would become the next Crouching Tiger. "It didn't," Biskind adds.
Biskind paints a portrait of Harvey Weinstein familiar to anyone who's even heard of him, much less had dealings with him--as a man who will seduce with one hand, then administer a bloody beating with the other. The Weinsteins claim to love films but buy them often to butcher them, claiming they're too long or complicated or occasionally just too foreign for American audiences; hence the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands," infamous among filmmakers who take Miramax money and come to wish they had resisted the temptation. On occasion, the Weinsteins will even buy movies just to keep them away from competitors.
When Harvey bought Hero, he said that the purchase was "another example of Miramax's commitment of bringing the best of Asian and martial-arts entertainment to Western audiences"--a comment that would come to gall fans of Asian and martial-arts films, who loathe Miramax for the way it buys Asian films and either dumps them right to video or dubs the life out of them by forcing Asians to "speak" English rather than forcing audiences to read subtitles. (Kasha says Miramax often can't buy the subtitle rights and is forced to dub a movie.)
Miramax has botched the release of its Asian acquisitions, including the long-promised-never-delivered comedy-fu Shaolin Soccer and Tsui Hark's computer-generated wonder The Legend of Zu, so much so that Web sites have sprung up denouncing the company. Chief among them are Kung Fu Cult Cinema (www.kfccinema.com) and the Web Alliance for the Respectful Treatment of Asian Cinema (alliance.hellninjacommando.net), the latter of which is best known by its subtitle, "Stop Disney from butchering Asian films!"
Both sites contain open letters to Miramax, blasting the studio for "deliberately spitting on the fans of the Asian movie genre" (from Kung Fu Cult Cinema) and mistreating films by either cutting them down or dubbing them into English or bypassing the theater for a Blockbuster shelf. Such was the unforgivable treatment given the dazzling sci-fi film Avalon, from revered Japanese director Mamoru Oshii, whose 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell was chief among the inspirations for The Matrix.
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Kasha says Avalon went to home video because Miramax didn't think it would be prudent to spend a small fortune marketing a movie few would see outside the film-fest circuit. "It comes down to economics," he says. "Today, the line between watching a movie at home and in the theater is getting blurrier. Right now, home video revenue is twice what box office is. We hit $22 billion last year just on video, so what it comes down to is testing movies to see if they go in theaters and what makes sense to go to directly to video."
Just last month, Miramax sent its attorneys after a Web site that offers fetishists superior information and opinion about HK cinema, Kung Fu Cinema (www.kungfucinema.com). The studio sent the site's owner, Mark Pollard, a letter accusing him of "selling, distributing and/or otherwise exploiting copies of the film Hero on DVD and/or VHS," because Kung Fu Cinema was directing readers to foreign Web sites where Hero could be legally purchased. After all, it's an old movie in China and has been available on DVD there for a while.
"The actions of Miramax are counterproductive and will likely motivate movie piracy," wrote Kung Fu Cult Cinema's editors, Janick Neveu and Peter Zsurka, in a December 2003 letter to Miramax. The studio, they insist, "simply ends up looking bad, frightening and shocking the Asian fan community. What we suggest to Miramax [is] instead of trying to rule the people by force, why don't they simply release the movies?"
It's a good question for which there is no great answer. Kasha says, "Harvey loves these movies" and insists that "Hero will be coming to a theater near you, it's just a matter of when." Till then, you can always buy Hero or Shaolin Soccer or The Legend of Zu--or just about any Asian movie Miramax owns but hasn't released--on DVD, and they won't cost you $20 million. Or even 20 bucks.